Debate and the Virtue of Intellectual Integrity by Adam Torson

Intellectual integrity denotes a commitment to the honest
pursuit of truth through openness to evidence, ideas, and the criticisms of
others. It prohibits the subordination of truth to expediency or personal gain,
and requires us to be on guard against self-deception and short-sightedness. It
requires a balance between the courage of honest conviction and the humility to
recognize that our conclusions must always be uncertain and provisional.

Practiced with intellectual integrity, debate can be a
powerful vehicle for personal growth. It encourages the self-reflection that
helps students to cultivate a mature inner-life. Conscience is little more than
an honest internal dialogue – the ability to critically reflect on one’s own
thoughts and actions. Openness to opposing beliefs requires appreciating what
the world looks like from someone else’s point of view, which in turn fosters
humility, perspective, and tolerance. I think that many of us credit debate as
a formative experience precisely because it taught us the virtue of
intellectual integrity.

Intellectual integrity is also indispensable in cultivating
a sense of civic virtue. Our public life is plagued by sophistry and mindless
line-toeing. Politics is treated like a spectator sport, and we engage only if we
are enthralled by the spectacle. Intellectual integrity is a bulwark against
citizenship devolving in this way. One with intellectual integrity is willing
to be persuaded by reasoned argument rather than held hostage by ideology or
tribalism. It requires suspicion of convention and to be more than a mere
political dilettante or pseudo-intellectual. Above all, intellectual integrity bars
credulous acquiescence to demagogues and mediocre apologists. By careful
examination of the challenges we must face together, debate can foster a mature
sense of connection to our many communities. We must recognize the burden of
stewardship that comes with the opportunity to work with gifted young people.

If what I’ve said rings true, then the debate community is
obliged to embrace intellectual integrity as one of its core values. We aspire
to be a community of thinkers and learners, and this goal is conveyed not
simply by what we teach in the classroom but by the practices we deploy. I
encourage the examination of those practices through the lens of intellectual

Against Purposeful

Too often in debate, strategy devolves into sophistry.
Debaters utilize a series of tactics designed only to muddy the water, to
obscure a fair evaluation of the merits of their arguments by either judges or
opponents. This includes the distortion of evidence, e.g. by reading cards out
of context so as to make it seem that authors using terms differently actually
intend the same meaning. It includes evasive or overly ambiguous explanations of
arguments, designed to allow debaters to shift their positions in the
rebuttals. It includes impossibly dense and blippy analytical frameworks with
contingent standards, layers of unreasonable spikes, theory bait, and other
tricks hidden throughout.

These tactics are inconsistent with an ethic of intellectual
integrity. The rules that we set up to make the debate game intellectually
rigorous are exploited to separate us altogether from a meaningful contest of
ideas; the tail wags the dog. A student deploying these tactics hopes to win
not because he marshals the most compelling argument, but because his opponent
makes a superficial error or his judge is too embarrassed to admit that he
didn’t properly follow the argument. We hope that the practice of dialectic
contestation will help us to challenge or confirm our beliefs on important
personal and political questions. Strategies of purposeful obfuscation, on the
other hand, turn arguments into mere instruments of power – ways of
manipulating the circumstances to contrive a favorable outcome. These
strategies are disingenuous approaches to thinking through the topic because
they are fundamentally unrelated to the residual quality of the arguments. That
bad arguments could reliably beat good ones should strike us as a very strange
outcome in any debate event worthy of the name.

Against Shallow

There are too many cases whose purposeful design is not
passable as genuine intellectual work product. Arguments crafted by non-expert
high school students can only hope to approximate scholarly work, but that does
not excuse an entirely unrigorous treatment of the topic.

Most familiarly, these include cases whose only strategic
logic is the speed at which they are read. I am a believer in the merits of
fast debate, but when that tactic is used not to develop arguments more deeply
but to increase the sheer number of disconnected, weakly warranted blips on the
flow, it ceases to do anything that remotely resembles the realistic
justification of arguments.

Similarly familiar are debaters who refuse to defend a
topic-relevant advocacy. It seems most reasonable to me to interpret debate resolutions
as normative. We evaluate the topic in the hopes that our conclusions might
affect our choices in the real world. Many cases take such a rigid, formalistic
approach that any connection they have to our lived experiences goes out the
window. These tactics are virtually identical to what is commonly called “the
pivot” in Presidential debates. When a candidate finds a question unpalatable,
he simply creates a superficial connection to another topic about which he is
more confident. The tactic is designed to avoid engagement on difficult or
controversial issues and instead fall back onto clichés and stock-phrases – the
opposite of intellectual integrity.

So-called “democracy” cases are a good example. These
positions include a framework about the importance of democracy and then
arguments purporting to prove that one side of the resolution is ‘what the
people want.’ On the surface, these cases generally misrepresent their
framework authors and deploy extremely low-quality offense like cable news
network polls. More fundamentally, they turn what are essentially normative
topics into uninteresting descriptive questions about which there really is no
meaningful objective answer. It is a perversion to suggest that a belief in
democracy could be an excuse to not
debate the merits of an issue and instead defer blindly to some arbitrary
snapshot of public opinion. Even more disconcerting (but for essentially the
same reasons) are so-called “sovereignty” positions, which posit that because
the state must be sovereign we should simply do whatever it wants. Nobody actually believes that, and it
abdicates the basic role of argument in a democratic society. Yet, we’ve built
an argument culture that consistently gives these positions a great deal of

Similarly, many debaters routinely deploy extremely dense
and esoteric philosophical positions to avoid substantive, topical debate.
There are many times in debate rounds when I can see the virtue of a very well
developed debate about highly specialized philosophical questions. Philosophy
debate is a critical part of thinking rigorously about the relative importance
of impacts. That said, it’s hard to imagine that whether the U.S. should
implement a universal healthcare system (for example) routinely turns on whether
motivational internalism is a legitimate constraint on validating moral
theories. In response to a poverty relief case that purported to save 18
million lives per year, I once heard a debater ask incredulously, “What
framework does that link to?” You have to be taught that there is a credible
argument that makes 18 million lives per year an irrelevant impact – I doubt
very many people come into the activity with that sensibility. By necessity
every argument makes unwarranted assumptions, but we have somehow imposed an
enormously high burden of proof on our most plausible intuitions. Philosophy
debate is great, but what currently passes as philosophy debate is often a
deeply misguided approach to the topic.

Finally, many debaters abuse theory in precisely the same
way. On many questions LD is in the midst of a theory quagmire, so I guess
seeing more theory debate is to be expected. I do believe that theory has an
important role to play in developing our community norms. Nevertheless, we all
know that debaters too often deploy gratuitous theory which can’t plausibly
advance the interests of fairness or education one iota. This is another pivot:
avoid the topic by changing the subject. It’s time for all of us to take some
responsibility on this issue.

What We Can Do About


I encourage debaters to embrace the responsibility that
comes with argumentative agency. Ultimately the person who chooses the
arguments you run is you. More than that, you are the authors of the culture. Coaches
and judges do what they can to provide incentives to debate in certain ways,
but it is ultimately a commitment in the minds of debaters to deploy
intellectually sound strategies that creates the norm.

The willingness to win at any cost is a bankrupt approach to
debate. While it’s great to take pride in your accomplishments, the luster of
debate trophies will eventually fade. Choose to make one of your lasting
contributions to the community the choice to debate with intellectual
integrity. You will value the habits of mind you develop for the rest of your


Judges can change the incentive structure. Give lower
speaker points for positions that purposefully obfuscate or take a shallow
approach to the topic. Refuse to vote on arguments you didn’t understand. That
takes the courage to answer debaters’ questions honestly and stick to your
guns. To be thought of as a “good judge” is a status marker, and penalizing
debaters for common but unsound practices might jeopardize that, but recognize
that your need for validation from high school students should be trumped by
your obligations as an educator.

Lastly, make a good faith effort to meaningfully evaluate
the quality of arguments and give students feedback. Translating lines and
arrows on the flow into oral form is the laziest and least useful thing you can
do for students. We learn by talking about arguments, so talk about arguments.
Judging isn’t always easy or formulaic, but it’s not supposed to be.


As coaches, we must own up to the style with which our teams
debate. Far too many of us decry practices that our own debaters utilize (I’m
sure I’ve been guilty of this). We can’t (and shouldn’t) exercise dictatorial
control over what arguments our students run, but we do have a bully pulpit.
The burden of stewardship falls most directly on us, and it is irresponsible to
abdicate this role entirely to camps, judges, and the tactical flavor of the

More importantly, our students take their cues from us. If we
sacrifice intellectual integrity for the sake of competitive success, our
example will be heeded. Competition is a brilliant motivator for students to
push themselves to do a great deal of high-quality work, but we can’t forget
that winning is only an instrumental value. If our students walk away from
their debate careers without an appreciation for intellectual integrity, then
surely they’ve missed the point. Let’s do what we can to make sure that doesn’t